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1/6/09

Happiness: Positive Emotions Versus Life Meaning

Mind Shadows Happiness: Positive Emotions Versus Life Meaning

Book store shelves are filled with happiness self-help books by self-appointed gurus. This book is based on scientific research on happiness strategies--

Are transient positive emotions really as important to strive for as honor, integrity, or meaning in life? The answer is that the very question is misleading. It sets up a false dichotomy between so-called hedonistic pleasures and the well-deserved gratifications of the mind, heart, and soul. In truth, positive emotion is positive emotion, joy is joy, contentment is contentment. Who is to compare the thrill of a helicopter ride with the ecstasy of spiritual awakening, the joy of lemonade in the high desert to the delight of hearing your baby's first laugh? Experiences that forge a sense of life meaning, whether they involve helping a friend in need, worshiping a higher power, or developing a superior expertise, are happy moments, even if the positive emotions surrounding them may not always be evident or if they differ (as they undoubtedly do) from the positive emotions induced by a sugar high.

So don't pooh-pooh pleasure. You can find pleasure in a silly TV show or in being wholly absorbed in a lecture on astrophysics. Both types of pleasure contribute to a happy life, and both types of pleasure can give rise to the multiple benefits of positive emotions, like feeling more sociable, more energetic, and more resourceful. An avalanche of studies has shown that happy moods, no matter the source, lead people to be more productive, more likable, more active, more healthy, more friendly, more helpful, more resilient, and more creative. This means that positive emotions actually help us achieve our goals (reinforcing the feeling that we are working toward something important) as well as help us strive for meaning and purpose in life. Indeed, a series of intriguing studies at the University of Missouri found that happy moods lead people to perceive their lives as more meaningful; for example, the more positive emotions people experience during a particular day, the more meaningful they judge that day. That seriousness and greatness must be accompanied by grumpiness is a myth.

I confess now that I did gloss over something. The source of the happy moments does in fact matter, for it influences the ability of the experience to be self-sustaining. Although the bliss of a sinful pleasure can trigger the same kinds of intellectual, social, and physical benefits as the bliss of hard-earned effort, the sinful pleasure is over quickly and, what's more, can leave guilt or negative feelings in its wake. But the pleasure borne of any of the happiness-inducing strategies described here, whether they involve practicing optimism, nurturing relationships, developing coping strategies, or living in the present, is lasting, recurring, or self-reinforcing.

From The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Found here.

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